Monday, March 2, 2009

Are You Really Listening? Probably Not.

Imagine what it would be like if you felt heard – not just listened to, but like someone fully got what you were communicating. Now, flip that around. When was the last time you fully heard someone else?

So much emphasis is placed on messaging and oratory skills. But very little time and energy is spent on developing facility with the act of listening. Some people are simply gifted with this skill, but more often than not, listening must be practiced and developed. It requires that the person on the receiving end is able to turn off that inner voice/critic to consciously absorb the words and messages that are being sent.

When I went through coaching training, a great amount of the focus was on the varying levels of listening. They were broken down as follows:
  • Level I is internal – we hear the words, but the focus is on what they mean to us
  • Level II is focused – the attention is about listening for something…focused over there, on the other person
  • Level III is conscious and global – it is hearing that picks up the various nuances underlying the communication, including sensory data (emotion, body language, mood, pace, energy level), and the context and environment.
Most of the time, people are listening at Level I. Hopefully, they are at least hearing the words that are being spoken, but often they are disconnected, evaluating or judging the message (they think they are hearing!), or thinking about what they will say next.

Level II and III listening are so much more powerful. It is not about passively hearing, but about taking action through listening. In those experiences, you are not only connecting to the actual message as it was intended, but to the person him/herself. In that space, you open up the ability to co-create a true dialogue where each person feels heard, valued, and respected. Finally, by modeling active listening, you are encouraging the other person to listen actively as well.

Here are some suggestions.
  • W.A.I.T. – “Why am I talking?” is a great question to ask yourself when you feel compelled to interject. Is what you're saying or about to say really contributing? Are you piggybacking or stealing the topic (“I can completely relate. It reminds me of the time…”)? Or are you simply trying to show how smart or compassionate you are?
  • Curiosity – If you find your mind wandering because you are not fully engaged or are even confused, bring curiosity to the table. Refocus your attention on more than just the words and try to deeply listen for what is going on over there in the speaker’s world. Ask questions to delve deeper into the topic.
  • Be other-directed – Focus on the person communicating. Follow and understand the speaker as if you were walking in their shoes. Listen with your ears but also with your eyes and other senses.
  • Be aware – Non-verbally acknowledge to yourself points in the speech. Let the argument or presentation run its course. Don't agree or disagree, but encourage the train of thought.
  • Be involved – Actively respond to questions and directions. Use your body position (e.g. lean forward) and attention to encourage the speaker and signal your interest.
These may seem obvious, but most people don’t bring this level of listening to their conversations. Consider for a moment that what you thought was listening is actually just hearing. Like a scientist, throw out your assumptions and ego and assume that you are not well-adept at listening. Think about what you could shift when in the moment, and practice being present with your ears and heart open. By simply changing your focus, you may discover something new about the message or even about the person.

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